TheMaizeAndBlueReview - Keys To The Game: Michigan Wolverines Football At Penn State
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Keys To The Game: Michigan Wolverines Football At Penn State

Penn State is 51-21 under head coach James Franklin since his arrival in Happy Valley, but the Nittany Lions haven’t been great against very good teams.

In fact, some would say they’ve been downright bad, and the record reflects it.

Franklin has gone 2-9 against top-10 teams since he took over in State College and picked up his first win over a ranked team on the road last week when Penn State pulled out a 17-12 win at Iowa. That made him 1-6 against ranked teams on the road.

At home, though, it’s been a different story. PSU is similar to Michigan in that it looks like a completely different team at home versus away from it. The Nittany Lions get the Wolverines at home Saturday night, of course — the last time they did they put a 42-13 beating on U-M in 2017.

PSU is a nine-point favorite this time around, which would have been unfathomable to think about during the summer but now seems about right.

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Franklin is only 1-3 against Jim Harbaugh, having been blown out three times, but his team showed resolve and toughness at Iowa, while U-M sputtered to the finish against a poor Illinois team. If you believe in momentum … No. 9 Penn State has it, while Michigan still seems to be searching for a positive identity. The Wolverines’ current personality is a team that is undisciplined, can’t get out of its own way and fragile on the road.

Here’s what Harbaugh and his team have to do Saturday to change the narrative and remain in the hunt for a Big Ten championship:

Michigan football's Jim Harbaugh and James Franklin will square off for the fifth time Saturday night in State College.
Michigan football's Jim Harbaugh and James Franklin will square off for the fifth time Saturday night in State College. ()

Play mistake-free football: This isn’t hard-hitting analysis here. In fact, it’s pretty obvious. But it’s also the No. 1 factor when it comes to keeping this game competitive, and it goes beyond turnovers.

Mistakes have prevented this team from being consistent, especially offensively, for the entire season. There’s been at least one turnover in every game, and it would have been worse — and Michigan might have lost — had two fumbles not been recovered by offensive players against Iowa. The Wolverines are 118th out of 130 teams in turnovers lost (13) and 126th in fumbles lost (nine). It’s an epidemic, and losses will mount against a tough back half of the schedule if they continue.

But they’re not the only mistakes hindering this team. The first drive of the second half against Illinois, for example — senior quarterback Shea Patterson drops the ball and jumps on it for a four-yard loss. Redshirt junior tight end Nick Eubanks drops a pass on second down, leading to a punt two downs later … Those are the things that can’t happen in a game like this.

Every possession, every play counts. They’ll need to bring their ‘A’ game to win in that primetime environment.

Limit yardage underneath coverage: Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown has made adjustments to take away the crossing routes teams have burned his group with over the last several games, sometimes leaving a safety or linebacker in wait, other times mixing in some zone.

Penn State wide receiver K.J. Hamler will be an issue for the Wolverines if they don't continue to mix it up. He’s a potential nightmare when it comes to yards after catch, having amassed 455 yards receiving (231 after the catch) and proving to be deadly in space — he’s 5-9 and shifty, so they’ll try to get him the ball when he’s on the move and let him work underneath the defense.

PSU quarterback Sean Clifford, meanwhile, is extremely capable with his feet, having run for 252 yards (on 4.3 yards per carry). He’s also been sacked three times in a trio of games this year, so there’s opportunity there for the aggressive Michigan defense … but only if the Wolverines’ pass rushers maintain lanes and don’t leave the middle of the field open for him. Let him out and he’ll burn you.

U-M should be able to prevent deep explosive plays and stop the run against this team. These are the battles that will determine who wins the war on that side of the ball.

Hit on some explosive plays offensively: Penn State’s defense has athletes all over the field, and sustaining long drives against them is difficult … and probably will be for a Michigan offense that can’t help but shoot itself in the foot on a play or two each drive.

They Nittany Lions will mix up their defenses as well as anyone in the conference, from Tampa Two look (dropping a middle linebacker deep in coverage) to zone blitzes to straight man.

It’s when they’re in cover zero (blitzing with no safety help) that Patterson will have an opportunity to take some shots with his receivers. Many made fun of PSU’s “arm punt” offense in 2016 when the Nittany Lions won the Big Ten, but it worked. This is a game in which a big receiver like U-M junior Nico Collins can make an impact on 50-50 balls, but only if Patterson can recognize the defenses. They disguise them well.

The Breakdown — Michigan at Penn State: This Penn State team is not as talented offensively as the one that blew the Wolverines out two years ago in Happy Valley. There’s no Saquon Barkley in the backfield or Trace McSorley under center.

Though Clifford has been solid, he’s struggled in the passing game against the two decent teams the Nittany Lions have played this year, going 14-of-30 passing in a 17-10 win over Pitt and 12 for 24 during the victory at Iowa. Their receivers are just solid outside of the explosive Hamler.

U-M has the talent to win this game, but does it have the team? The Wolverines have put together only one complete game this year, a 52-0 shellacking of Rutgers (against whom everyone seems to put a complete game together), and their road woes against good teams continue.

This is a very winnable game, but not if they play the way they’ve competed so far this season.

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